Inclusive Language and Politeness

Every now and then I learn how to be just a bit more polite to someone.

It isn’t that I’m particularly rude, at least, I hope not. It is more that I’m still learning about people and still learning about how people prefer to be treated. Meeting a lot of people as I do means that there’s always more to learn.

Here at St Mary’s, we are quite sensitive to gender. There was an exercise going on in the office today which was all about writing to the congregation and we faced every possible variation of people living in the same premises who might prefer to be written to together or who might prefer to receive a letter addressed not to a couple but to two individuals. Lots of different legal ways in which people find themselves coupled up means a lot of difficulty trying to decide how to address letters and envelopes.

On this occasion, it isn’t me who is doing that job but others and it is inevitable that some people will find themselves being addressed in ways that they would prefer not to be addressed. I hope they will simply let us know if we’ve got it wrong.

Inclusive language in church seems to attract a huge amount of comment but it is really mostly a question of politeness.

Long ago, I accepted that it is a bit rude to speak to a group of people which includes people who identify as both male and female as though they are all men. And for that reason, we try to use inclusive language at St Mary’s.

It is harder than it seems too. Hymns are the most difficult to deal with. Most hymns can be changed sensitively and sensibly into language that is inclusive of everyone but it does take work and there are some that I just don’t know what to do with.

To me it isn’t an issue of political correctness, it is just a matter of being polite. Why be an oaf and deliberately leave other human beings feeling left out of your discourse after all?

There are some hymns I can’t put into inclusive language which have just disappeared from our hymnnody here. An example of that would be

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three, and God is One;
And I next acknowledge duly
Manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
In that Manhood crucified;
And each thought and deed unruly
Do to death, as He has died.

I can’t see any way of making that singable now and to sing the original makes some people snigger about the word Manhood. So, love the tune as I do and though it tugs a bit on my heartstrings, we’ve not sung it for years and I can’t really imagine it being sung here again.

There are a tiny number of hymns that I can’t do anything much with in terms of changing them but which I’m not prepared to ditch. The most obvious of these is:

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

I don’t like “mankind” but I can’t find any way of rewriting it that makes sense and it is just too good a hymn to drop completely.

Similarly with Bunyan:

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

I think there is some fun to be had singing that occasionally with female pronouns (“She’ll fear not what men say…” and all) but basically it isn’t a hymn that lends itself to inclusive language and my best hope is anyone singing it might realise that if we are singing about hobgoblins then we are not really using the language of the moment anyway.

It is my view that we need to reflect the widest range of imagery for both human beings and for God simply because we are biblical people and that’s reflective of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.

That’s why we sometimes sing things that have exclusively female imagery as well as those which have lots of male language. This from John Bell is particularly good:

She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.

For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.

It was interesting to see the opprobrium which landed upon the Church of Sweden over some minor inclusive language changes this week.

“The Church of Sweden to stop referring to God as He or Lord” howled the Telegraph and many other newspapers without bothering to check whether this was remotely true. They’ve changed the liturgy to include one gender-neutral expression as a possibility for the start of a worship service. So now, they can use “In the name of the triune God” as well as still being able to use – “In th e name of God, the Father and Son, and the Holy Spirit”

It doesn’t seem particularly radical to me but it is the kind of thing that stokes up fake outrage very quickly.

There quite a good report here: https://www.thelocal.se/20171124/no-the-swedish-church-has-not-banned-the-male-pronoun-god

The Swedish Church has hit out at ‘fake news’ after reports it had decided to stop calling God ‘he’ or ‘Lord’. ‘It is not true,’ a spokesperson told The Local.
The Church of Sweden will only refer to God in gender-neutral terms, reported several of the world’s biggest news outlets on Friday, saying it had made the decision in an update of its 31-year-old handbook…

“It’s not true,” repeated Sofija Pedersen Videke, head of the Church’s service of worship committee, which was heavily involved in the work on the new handbook before it went before the Church Assembly.

The Church Assembly, a 251-member decision-making body, voted on Thursday with a large majority to update the handbook, which includes the Church’s aim to use language that is “more inclusive”.

“The old handbook is from 1986 and the new edition is much more in line with the Swedish Bible translation made in 2000,” Pedersen Videke told The Local. “God is beyond ‘she’ and ‘he’, God is so much more.”

“We want variation when it comes to how you express yourself, just like in the Bible.”

It all seems so sensible, so Swedish and so completely unsensational.

The most recent things I’ve learned about inclusive language are that things that I used to think were inclusive of people are not so inclusive of other people.

Addressing an assembly of people as “brothers and sisters” or (better) “sisters and brothers” has for a long time seemed to me to be inclusive and capable of drawing people in.

I’ve recently learned that it can leave some people feeling very much excluded and left out of the circle of faith.

If you identify as non-binary then you are not going to feel included by sisters and brothers language at all.

And remember that God is distinctly non-binary in scripture.

This affects how we develop liturgy in the future. Its a good thing I think to write and speak in ways that don’t leave people feeling left out.

No, not just a good thing.

I think it is a polite thing.

We shouldn’t use inclusive language just because it seems right and certainly not just because we are told to use it. We should use it because it is a matter of politeness.

Imagine if you could draw more people into church just by being a bit more polite.

No.

Don’t just imagine it.

[Comments are allowed for this post but will be moderated. I’d be interested in any discussion about the post above but I’m not interested here in an argument against inclusive language per se or anything that is rude about women or indeed rude about anyone. Please argue about whether or not inclusive language should be a thing elsewhere if you must but not right here, right now. There’s a much more interesting conversation to be had about why we might want to be inclusive and how we might be inclusive and there’s always more to learn. I’ll be moderating accordingly].

Inclusive Language – again

I’ve been meaning to come back to the inclusive language question for the last couple of weeks and say something about it, but what to say at this point?

The story so far: after a great deal of shilly-shallying, one of the Scottish Episcopal Church’s liturgies has been given a few alternative texts which replace phrases which when intending to refer to people now do so using language that is inclusive of both men and women instead of simply referring to men or “mankind”. For example, in one of the prayers, we can now say, “which is your will for all the world” rather than “which is your will for all mankind.”

Oh, I know that some people react to this with the phrase, “political correctness gone mad” and refuse to think things through but to me its just a matter of politeness. Its rude to make people feel left out by using language which does not include their personhood and experience. I think that is a matter of etiquette at least as much as a matter of theology.

So far, so uncontroversial. (Well, almost, some people don’t like change and will get grumpety when it happens regardless).

The changes went a little futher than that though by allowing some changes to the way we refer to God. So, for example, we can now say, “…and peace to God’s people on earth” rather than “…and peace to his people on earth”.

When I looked through the changes I found that we had been using a number of them at St Mary’s for years and those other changes which have now brought in have come about without anyone saying anything. They have been entirely without controversy here, which is more or less as one might expect.

But what a furore this caused. Newspapers around the world led on “Scottish Episcopal Church declares that God is no longer male” (here’s the Telegraph article) despite the fact that we had not said such a thing nor said that God was male in the first place. It was all over the press and blogs like a rash.

Then came a statement on the SEC Website which I presume was written by the Primus saying that we were not changing the way the Church understands God.

It seems to me that if you move from a position of always referring to God in male-dominated language to something more subtle which does not treat God as necessarily male then you are indeed saying something about the fact that the church’s way of understanding and talking about God is developing. That seems to me to be both interesting and potentially full of good things. Do any of us think that our language encapsulates God. The idea of a God held hostage by our inadequate pronouns seems very far from whatever I’ve understood by God in the past.

Malcolm Round made a brave attempt to declare that God was in fact male and particularly that the Holy Spirit is male but I’m not convinced. One would think from the way he writes about it that none of us knew that some of the language for the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible uses words are grammatically female and always were. Malcolm also associates femaleness with gentleness. I’m not that sure my sisters would want to go all the way with that analogy.

I’m surprised that our bishops chose to make these changes by decree rather than going through a synodical process whereby we could talk about these things and come to something of a common mind about it. I agree with the changes but would rather have taken a bit longer and got more people on board. This very clearly changes the Church’s understanding of God and that’s a good news story not something to be shy of.

Now, what use of exclusive language is getting my goat and causes me to huff and puff whenever I hear it right now?

Its not gendered language at all. It is the phrase “family doctor” which seems to be constantly in use on the news and at the Tory party conference.

I don’t have a family doctor. I have a GP.

(GP = General Practitioner – for all our readers from furth of these shores).